Builders For The Carriage Trade


Not long ago a distinguished New Yorker, manager for many years of the great National Horse Show, was asked for his opinion of the famous, vanished carriage-building firm of Rrewster it Company. Wouldn’t he describe them as “the Tiffany of the carriage business”? Not at all, he replied. “Rather, I would say that Tiffany is the Rrewster of the jewelry trade.”

When, in November, 1927, William Brewster sadly resigned as titular head of the company, then operated by others and engaged in manufacturing custom automobile bodies, he put a period to a family history of carriage and car building that spanned more than a century. During that long period, three generations of equally talented Brewsters had made their name synonymous with grace and elegance, a beauty the modern eye still remarks. Even when gasoline and mass production appeared on the scene, the Brewsters clung to fine hand craftsmanship. Inevitably, they were swept aw:;y. But while they existed they triumphed in their field as cleanly as the American clipper in the world of sail; their ledgers of customers, now preserved at the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society, read like a Blue Book for Victorian America.

The era of the carriage is shorter than one thinks. When Elder William Brewster, ancestor of the carriage builders, took ship in the Mayflower in 1620, there was not a stage coach operating in England, or a decent road for one (the first lines began about 1640). In fact, the first vehicle even resembling the modern coach had not appeared in England at all until the Duke of Rutland had one imported from the Continent in 1564. Nothing but crude carts and farm wagons were built in the American colonies until the mid-Eighteenth Century, and there were precious lew of them abroad when James, first of the carriage-making Brewsters, was born in Preston, Conn., in 1788.

Early in life fames developed a fierce sense of identity with Benjamin Franklin, whose maxims he often studied as much as an hour a day, even while working twelve hours a day, six days a week. His worship of Franklin was reflected in his own moralistic accounts of himself, which he could frequently be prevailed upon to share with others. Sometimes he even described himself in the third person.

“Feeble in early life,” Brewster years later told a captive audience of his employees, “encountering in his minority as many trials as any who hear him, fatherless and with but little outward assistance and laboring constantly for one half a century, yet his natural force is not materially lessened and it is all owing to temperance and practicing upon that trite saying, ‘habits, good or bad, are powerful things.’ ”

Brewster liked to point out that he had refused the oiler of a financed college education, following Franklin’s edict that a trade was preferable to a profession. At 15 he was apprenticed to a carriage maker in Northampton, Massachusetts. Presently his employer failed (drink, hinted Brewster), and with Sgo in his pocket, the ex-apprentice headed for New York by coach in 1809. The vehicle broke down in New Haven, and while he waited Brewster dropped in on one John Cook, who had set up the first carriage shop in New Haven in the rear of his house. After a few moments’ conversation, Cook offered Brewster a job. It was accepted. This decision, according to a later historian, “indirectly exerted more influence than any other in making New Haven the principal seat of carriage-building in New England.”

The next year, 1810, Brewster, having lived for a year on $40, and saved $250 from a salary of a little over $5 a week, married and started his own shop. As creative as he was industrious, he improved carriage design and, consequently, the public demand for them. The most popular carriage of the early Nineteenth Century was the one-horse or road-wagon, later to be known as the buggy and runabout, which Brewster soon improved along with revisions in the coach, the phaeton, and the rockaway (the first completely American carriage, which democratically afforded protection to the coachman in bad weather). The body lines of the coupé rockaway were adopted by the early automobile body makers for their limousines, and those of the curtain rockaway for their station wagons.